Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Fear of Faith

On Sunday, we will read the familiar gospel story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the sea when a storm arises (Mark 4:35-41). At staff meeting yesterday, Seth pointed out that the Greek words for the disciples' reaction to Jesus' stilling of the storm (καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν), which the NRSV translates as "were filled with great awe," literally means "were afraid with a great fear." In fact, in the preceding verse, when Jesus questions the disciples, the sentence translated for us as "Why are you afraid?" does not use the same word for "fear" but uses "δειλοί," which certainly connotes fear but has its root in a different word that means "dread." Does it matter? The difference actually makes a difference.

The word "δειλοί" is an adjective that Strong's Concordance defines as "cowardly, fearful." Strong's defines the other word "φόβον" as "panic flight, fear, the causing of fear, terror." Those don't sound that different until you dig a little deeper. Strong's also defines the latter as "reverence, respect." At first, I thought that was because of a difference in the origins of the words, but it turns out that "deos," the root for "deiloi" can also mean "reverence," but that particular connotation is apparently never used in the New Testament. Strong's notes that "deilós is always used negatively in the NT and stands in contrast to the positive fear which can be expressed by phóbos." In other words, although both words mean fear, "phóbos" is used in the NT to mean "reverence" while "deilós" is always used to mean "terror."

So, back to the boat, the disciples wake up Jesus and ask him, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" After Jesus stills the storm, he says to the disciples, "Why are you cowardly fearful?" And the disciples' reaction is to be filled with amazement and holy fear. Actually, the NRSV does a pretty good job of conveying that by using "awe" to describe the disciples' reaction. But, before we gather as a congregation to hear this lesson and the sermon that likely accompanies it, it's worth remembering the difference in the kinds of fear conveyed in this story.

Nowadays, we don't use the word "fear" to describe our reaction to God's presence very often, but I think it's still familiar enough to us for us to understand it. God isn't always cuddly. Yes, God is depicted in scripture as an intimate lover. Yes, God is described as one who speaks with Moses face to face. But most often prophets and kings are overwhelmed when they come close to the Almighty. "Woe is me!" Isaiah declares, "for I am a man of unclean lips amidst a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." This is the natural response of a created being in the presence of the Uncreated One. The disciples holy fear is a sign that they are starting to understand who it is that they are accompanying on this journey.

Jesus is the one whom even the wind and the sea obey. In other words, Jesus is divine. Only God can control the wind and the waves. Jesus questions why they are cowardly, and the disciples, upon realizing what is happening, are filled with holy terror. Initially, their cowardice was a position of faithlessness. They did not believe that Jesus could save them from a storm. When they woke him up, they didn't say, "Save us!" but "Don't you care that we are perishing?" During that boat ride, they get a glimpse of the awesome power that is with them in the boat, and their response is fear. That's the fear of faith--the fear of acknowledging that they are in the presence of God.

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